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Review — Season 25

First Published:
Strange Matter #9

Publish Date:
December 1991

I’m surprised how close this piece parallels my views a decade layer. I must have thought this one through pretty closely! For the record, I’m probably more inclined to the view that Remembrance is mostly flash (especially when compared to Fenric, as it often is), and I am a bit more lenient on the extended version of Silver Nemesis (the ‘Duck!’ scene alone makes it worth it. Like the ‘these shoes fit perfectly’ bit from the telemovie, it just matches what I want from my Doctor).

Let us start by setting the issue straight — Season 25 is probably not as good or bad a season as you think. Coming out of what is regarded by much of fandom as one of the deepest troughs Doctor Who has passed through (I don’t say it is so — I, for one, like The Trial of a Time Lord), the signs of improvement were seized upon by the hopeful and built up to a point where the truth quite simply had to disappoint. Season 25 was a time when McCoy has shed much of his light nature but was not quite a demigod yet, when Ace was still a bomb-throwing freak with a few token fears (clowns, Cybermen) thrown in. The stories were improving, on the way to Season 26, but how much progress had truly been made? It is now over three years since its original screening, and maybe now a more objective view can be taken (but this is fandom, if you’ll buy that can I interest you in some real estate?). I might just slip in a few personal opinions too.

But enough of the formalities. Let’s get into the guts of Season 25. Since I have absolutely no imagination, let us begin with the first story of the season, Remembrance of the Daleks.

This was, I should state first, for me, the highlight of the season, one of the few times where all seems to fall into place. I remember first seeing a fuzzy copy of it with a dozen other fans in America at the end of 1988, and being tremendously excited about what lay ahead with the remaining three stories of the season. Such naivety!

Remembrance succeeds in that it is a character and atmosphere-driven story. The Doctor and his conscience (or lack of it — you decide), Ace and Mike, the styles of the leaders: Gilmore, Ratcliffe and the Dalek factions; they all make the story. What plot there is is admittedly fairly mundane — running from Daleks in the streets or school corridors, and a few overtly spectacular battle scenes. But this takes, somewhat paradoxically, relatively little time. There is still the opportunity to see the Doctor brooding over tea or Ace noting racism at work.

It is a story where it is important to draw the distinction between the plot and the script (read dialogue); the plot is nondescript but the dialogue is most certainly not. This is, in many ways, what John Nathan-Turner had called for a decade ago: wit replaces slapstick, with the emphasis on action-adventure.

This would have to be the first season in which the memories of the stories has been so greatly, and so quickly, influenced by the novelisation of stories. It is extremely hard to think of Remembrance without being influenced by Ben Aaronovitch’s novelisation. If you like Remembrance to begin with, the better qualities of both the book and the television episodes merge very easily. The television version is really just the frame of the book, but it supports itself equally well with excellent production values. It is a great story to watch, with just about the perfect balance of humour (’If you don’t like it, you drive.’ is, in my ‘umble opinion, magic stuff) and enough whiz-bang to satisfy all but the most cynical.

Call me simple if you will. It is a great story to watch. I see no shame in that. They did good.

I like the Kandyman. ‘Pimplehead’ has a sense of style rare in Doctor Who monsters. Then again, he’s less of a monster than a character. Didn’t you love the threat from his flexing fingers at the end of episode one? Admire his sense of honour, of humour? No? Oh well…

As far as the Kandyman goes, my opinion has not changed over the past three years. As regards The Happiness Patrol as a whole, however, I am quite surprised at the change. I look back upon a review I wrote in February of 1989 and am amazed by the zealousness of it. Maybe rabid would be a better term…

But having said that, I can’t say I now really like the story. This is a story where a sequence of minor nags builds up, and I am left with a rather empty feeling at the end. It is admittedly a story that allows McCoy a multitude of opportunities to show his skills, be they twisting bureaucrats or confronting gunmen. The sets are fine with no hint of cheapness and the contrast between the dimly lit corridors contrasts well with the bright airy rooms of the leaders (until you read the novelisation and realise these are supposed to be dingy Bladerunner-style roads and palaces respectively). The acting is generally of a high calibre, and the overall concept of a world ruled by the iron hand of friendliness is an attractive one. So where did things go wrong?

The first scene of any story has a great responsibility to secure the attention of the viewer. And it is a fine scene — until the last line. It is really beyond me how Georgina Hale managed to mess up that wonderful line ‘Have a nice death!’. She’s barely coherent! Unfortunately that is what is remembered, and the credibility of the story starts to fall away. There are other examples: witness ‘He is obviously a spy…’ and ‘That red-hot poker will cut through you like a knife through butterscotch!’. These are not particularly poor lines in themselves, but their delivery very strongly delivers the message to the viewer that this is an "oddball" story, one not to be taken seriously. I am not saying that it is so, but the suggestion is there, and that is ultimately more important.

The direction of Happiness Patrol is also less than impressive. Chris Clough has never been all that favoured by me, and this story does little to change that. It’s not so much that I dislike his style as I simply find it totally uninspiring. One thing I do dislike is his handling of action scenes. He has this predilection for skipping madly from camera to camera, the best example probably being when Wences rescues Ace from the Waiting Zone. It does not lend pace but rather confusion. A much needed (and appreciated) exception is the Doctor’s final confrontation with Helen A, and Fifi’s death. Augmented with brilliant music, it was a very powerful scene for even those turned off by all that passed before and should have ended the story. Unfortunately, and in a fashion typical for virtually all television (LA Law being one of the few exceptions), a nice, happy, anti-climatic ending with a punchline was chosen instead.

But back to my petty, but ultimately significant, whinging. The pipe-dwellers (why couldn’t they at least have a name?) were, despite all their cuteness, just stock characters. We never even got a decent look at their faces! Why would the (government-controlled) reports announce unhappy news? The go-cart sound was horrific — surely it could have been dubbed over? If half a million people have been killed (population ‘controlled’ down by 17%) there is obviously a population of several million. And every single one of them have to be at the Forum? Now that’s a decent size stadium…

I also find that figure of 17% to be quite incredible. The Khmer Rouge killed, percentage-wise, almost that much, but spread it over the whole of their reign. Helen A achieves it in six months! Given that attitude, it’s amazing how long she lasted (at least five years according to page 23 of the book).

More damaging, and that is a gross understatement, is the scene where the Doctor frees Ace and Susan Q at the Forum. While it is obvious what the Doctor is doing, and it is a fine enough plan as it goes, I do not like it at all. As I see it (and I’m sure, more importantly, many casual viewers also did), this scene seriously damages the Doctor’s credibility. Scenes like this, ones that I am basically embarrassed when non-fans see it, are simply not allowable.

So maybe I am still sounding a little rabid here, but I really am put off by these flaws and how they ruined quite a witty script and generally very good acting. As a whole, I can’t say I dislike the story. Unfortunately, particular parts of the presentation of the story greatly detracted from the overall effect, and my appreciation is lost. Pity.

I was rather annoyed at how Happiness Patrol was let down by its production. It would be too kind to say the same of Silver Nemesis. Nominated the twenty-fifth anniversary story, it shares a similar style with The Five Doctors (lots of running around and a ungainly high number of characters) but it lacks the urgency and sheer magic of its predecessor. Comparing the two does not overly drag Silver Nemesis down — but its own sheer incompetence certainly does.

I first "saw" Silver Nemesis on a NTSC television playing a PAL tape. Basically, that results in no picture and Chipmunk-style voices. Quite an accurate representation, actually…

Seriously, the only part I remember with affection is when Ace is fleeing the Cybermen through the deserted ironwork. There was real tension as Ace’s hand reached gingerly for the bag of coins, unlike the rest of the dawdling story. It had bold, dynamic, active direction from the usually passive Chris Clough. Unlike the static (dare I say boring?) battle scene that began episode two, this was engrossing stuff. I never did work out who I was supposed to be backing in that battle…

Let me rephrase my feelings on this story. Individual scenes, especially some of the more comic ones with Peinforte and Richard, are quite fine in themselves. All together, however, you have to wonder where the story is wandering off to. How do the Queen and yobbo scenes add to the drive of the story? They don’t. To waste screen time (for that is what it is) in a three episode story, with as many elements as Silver Nemesis has, is really quite criminal.

Of course, I and others would probably not slag Silver Nemesis as much if the promotion of it had not been so grandiose. Take this typical clip from Doctor Who Bulletin: ‘The story itself will have a profound effect on the already established Doctor Who mythology providing a major transition in the series after which, according to its author Kevin Clarke, things will never be the same again. The Doctor himself will be shown to be far more important than we ever suspected… his clowning would be unmasked as a cover to a much darker exterior…’. Now of course I would never call Kevin Clarke a liar, but after that hyperbole…

Unlike many of the virtually automatic beliefs that fill the Whovinerse (such as, for example, the widespread loathing of Adric), there is most certainly a solid reason for disliking Silver Nemesis. Yet perhaps the greatest denouncement of Silver Nemesis is the lack of supporters of it. You can find advocates for just about anything in fandom, but not everything…

It is interesting to note that while I view Remembrance as the best story of S25, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is, for me, a more memorable story. Remembrance relies on its action-adventure style to provide interest (Ace taking on an entire Dalek assault squad single-handed is not so much a result of the natural flow of that story as it is a result of the genre the story is attempting to fit into — basically, it adds nothing to the plot. That is not to say that is a waste — on the contrary, it is most engaging television). Remembrance grabs the audience’s attention using shock tactics. In contrast, Greatest Show works by interesting us in the characters — and interesting they surely are!

From the wily Captain Cook to the puzzling (and later sickeningly heroic) Deadbeat/Kingpin to the tormented Mags, these are characters who truly stand out. One could argue many of the characters are stereotypes, but that would be simplifying things considerably — Bellboy and Deadbeat are not just "madmen", while the Chief Clown and Ringmaster, despite being "baddies", still have very real and human doubts and fears. The opening scenes, with Flowerchild and Bellboy fleeing the circus (including that ever-so-naughty kiss, which had my sister in hysterics), are presented such that we, in a fashion quite different from the typical Doctor Who chase, are more interested in what has made them, respectively, so determined and despairing, than we are fearful of what is chasing them — and this is, in the long term, far more interesting. The thrill of the chase can only last as long as the chase itself does, but the underlying threat is more menacing and lasts the length of the story.

Bellboy is a fine example of how a story, by focusing on a character in preference to its plotline, can make a very sizable impact. At first we see him being dragged along by Flowerchild, passive and pathetic, but we gain a little more respect for him when he becomes the diversion, screaming at the kites. That kind of insanity (for want of a better term) is chilling stuff. His later utterings to Ace are brilliantly handled, truly showing how a script can be best complemented by acting, direction and lighting. The slats of light falling upon his face are an extremely effective method of showing the type of cage he is in. His death is totally convincing, both in the way he initiates it and the reactions of the Chief Clown. This is drama.

Of course, none of those scenes would have held much credibility if the actors had failed to convince. Fortunately, the opposite it true throughout all this story. Given the unusual style to many of those characters, and the many different faces they have for different people, it would have been all too easy for the standard to slip and the story as a whole be treated less seriously (I wonder which season could be used as an example of that?).

The production shines in other areas. Most obvious is the debut of Alan Wareing. One way to test how well a story has been directed is to try to remember how particular scenes were handled. As with, for example, The Leisure Hive, some scenes are memorable simply for how they were directed: Nord taking out his sandwich, the scenes within Bellboy’s caravan, the Whizzkid arriving at the circus with a screech of tyres. Even the common scene of the TARDIS arriving was revolutionised by having the doors facing away from the camera (in Leisure Hive the parallel was the materialisation over a moving picture). Thankfully Alan Wareing didn’t blow his budget like his Leisure Hive equivalent.

Other areas that gain credit from me are the eery billowing corridors and — get this — Nord’s bat ears. Don’t you think they’re cute? An area, if you could call it that, that I did not appreciate was much of the final episode (a fairly substantial area, I hear you say). The style of it is in total contrast to the captivating drama that had come before. McCoy’s light entertainment skills may be very fine, but as far as keeping the story moving those scenes are very debatable. Meanwhile, outside the God’s arena, the story degenerates to a run-around where the characters used to such effect previously are ignored except as standard plot devices. But at least this is simply a poor episode, not an embarrassing one.

But in the end, one of the things that makes Greatest Show so memorable for me is the way my six-year-old cousin James views it. He’s quite a decent little Whovian (though I’ve still got a fair bit of work to do to make sure it sticks) but this is the only story, with its clowns, that has scared him. As I had my Weng-Chiang, Full Circle, and Keeper of Traken, he’s got his Greatest Show. Must be something right with it to gain that role.

If you think I gushed over Remembrance and Greatest Show, and launched into diatribes against Happiness Patrol and Silver Nemesis, then you’re about right. Just remember I am a fan, and as such my opinion is not to be trusted. I might think your opinion is rubbish, you might see mine similarly, and we can have lots of petty arguments. Isn’t it fun?

End of Review

Here’s the list of the Doctor Who reviews available here:
Benny Adventure: Beyond the Sun
Benny Adventure: Deadfall
Benny Adventure: Ghost Devices/Mean Streets/Tempest
Benny Adventure: The Sword of Forever
Fanzines: Mag Bag #1
Fanzines: Mag Bag #2
Fanzines: Mag Bag #3
Fanzines: Mag Bag #4
Fanzines: Mag Bag #5
Fanzines: Mag Bag #6
Fanzines: Mag Bag #7
Fanzines: Mag Bag #8
Fanzines: Mag Bag #9
Fanzines: Mag Bag #10
Fanzines: Mag Bag #11
Fanzines: Mag Bag #12
Missing Adventure: Dancing the Code
Missing Adventure: Downtime
Missing Adventure: Invasion of the Cat-People
Missing Adventure: Lords of the Storm
Missing Adventure: Scales of Injustice
Missing Adventure: Shadow of Weng-Chiang
Missing Adventure: System Shock
New Adventure: Bloodheat
New Adventure: Death of Art
New Adventure: Dimension Riders
New Adventure: Eternity Weeps
New Adventure: Falls the Shadow
New Adventure: Legacy
New Adventure: No Future
New Adventure: Sleepy
TV: The Curse of Fenric
TV: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
TV: The Happiness Patrol
TV: Season 25 Review
TV: Season 27 Review (the 2005 return)
TV: The Twin Dilemma
→ Or just head back to the Doctor Who Index

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This page last updated by David J Richardson on Wed, 20 Apr 2005.